Preserving the culture of Kiribati

Landscape, Kiribati, 2011. Photo: Erin Magee / DFAT

by Bridget Kennelly

Throughout a long relationship with the people of Kiribati, the Palms organisation has prepared many very effective Australians and New Zealanders for assignments in various fields. In particular, schools have had the advantage of great teachers sharing their skills both with students and the i-Kiribati teachers for over 40 years.

As a result, the schools have been able to develop so many more confident and capable local teachers and leaders. Teacher Bridget Kennelly has recently returned to Australia and, on the World Day for Cultural Diversity (May 21), explains what she learnt about Kiribati culture over the more than two years she was there:

Kiribati students in local dress.

Culture, as defined by Oxford Languages, is the “ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society”. Cultural diversity (as a noun) is defined by “the existence of a variety of cultural or ethnic groups within a society”. Australia, therefore, by definition is uniquely so very culturally diverse, due to the large number of ethnicities who have come to this country.

The culture of Kiribati is so rich, and the citizens are filled with such pride when demonstrating aspects of their culture, such as traditional dance and song, and using natural resources in skills such as weaving, toddy cutting, cooking, fishing. I feel so privileged to have been invited to take part in many parts of the culture over my two years living and working in Kiribati. Some of my favourite times were spent lying on te buia (local open-walled raised hut) listening to Sr Maata and the bursar, Tierina, tell me many stories of Kiribati customs, always with hilarious anecdotes attached. Oral story-telling is also a large part of the culture in Kiribati; and I could have listened for hours!

Amongst their 32 atolls and one island, which make up the Republic of Kiribati, some special traditions and rituals exist, which may differ from those on other atolls, however there are many ways of doing things which are common to the whole country. At Immaculate Heart College, students came as boarders from all over Kiribati; some have a voyage of more than 10 days by ship (from Kiritimati Island, in particular).

Traditional customs and practices, still in very defined gender roles, are passed down through the generations in a family. Males would be taught skills including fishing, toddy-cutting, dancing, building, whilst girls would be taught skills including weaving, string-making, dancing, sewing and cooking. For some, the passing on of these cultural skills will ensure a livelihood for them in the future. Knowing the traditional ways of constructing a local house is a skill well sought after in a village, as it is seen as bringing bad luck to the family living there if the house is not constructed correctly.

Selling of thatch and woven mats are also valuable ways of earning an income. Dancing is strictly taught from a very young age, with precise head and hand movements stressed. I have witnessed some i-Kiribati people become so visibly emotionally overwhelmed while dancing that they can be known to scream out or faint, which is a testament to how much the dancing is a part of their very being.

There are also occasions which are very important. First birthdays (due to the very high infant mortality rate), first menstruation celebrations, engagements, weddings, deaths. All come with very particular rituals. Birthdays (aside from first and twenty-first) were not a big event, as many students were not aware of their birth date. Adoptions of newborn babies within a family is also common practice, and arranged marriages also occur.

Fresh crab and octopus ready for a Kiribati celebration.

The problem, which increased westernisation brings, is a risk that strong cultural practices will be diminished. However, the government of Kiribati is realistic and proactive. In the school curriculum, there is a subject called Kiribati Community Studies, which is a core subject up until Form 5 (Year 11 Australian equivalent). This subject ensures traditional skills and customs are not lost with the increasing western influence. Students are not only taught the skills of generations before, but are taught to critique and question the value of these skills. It comes down to, “How much is culture worth?”; You can buy a western synthetic mat to sleep on for $15 or make your own from the dried pandanus leaves . . . by being aware of the risk to culture, and that the “cost” of culture is invaluable, is the first step in taking steps to preserve it.

When a country’s traditional ways are becoming threatened due to westernisation (different foods, materials etc. entering the country), the passing on of traditional skills is a precious gift within a family.

A lot of cultural practices are based on natural resources. For a family with a limited income, due to limited employment opportunities, to be able to use resources as a livelihood can provide adequately for a family in terms of food, shelter and as an income.

Many i-Kiribati people are working abroad for increased employment opportunities to financially support their families back home, studying abroad to access broader tertiary opportunities, or migrating in order to seek better living conditions (escaping overcrowding, polluted water and polluted environment).

The future of Kiribati, due to their precarious position regarding fresh water, land erosion etc. leaves questions such as, “How do they keep their identity and culture strong if, or when, they migrate?”. I think the answer can be a shared responsibility. As the welcoming host country, we can promote cultural diversity, and value differences. Australia is so fortunate to have so many cultures coming together in one society, and with that comes such rich traditional practices. Let us help play our part in keeping Kiribati culture, and those of other countries, alive and well so we do not see such unique customs disappear.

Palms Australia is an association of Christ’s faithful, which recruits, prepares and sends skilled lay missionaries from New Zealand and Australia to assist the development projects of requesting communities in the Pacific, Asia and Africa. While Palms is a Catholic NGO, it welcomes requesting communities and mission participants of other/all faiths who share its common values of just, peaceful and sustainable development, firmly grounded in Catholic Social Teaching.

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